The management at Churchill Downs has taken many things from the media, most notably the press box, but thank heavens the coffee and doughnuts served in the media center are still fresh and free. I would not know how to cover the Kentucky Derby without a cup of coffee in hand. Over 48 years, I probably have drunk enough coffee on the backstretch during Derby week to float the Belle of Louisville.
Just as hot dogs always taste better at the ballpark, so does coffee taste better when dawn is breaking over Churchill Downs and a Derby contender is getting a good work, the breath from his flared nostrils visible in the damp cool of early morn. The ground seems to shake with the pounding of the hooves. Or is that the heart quickening at the sheer majesty of it all?
For this man's money, thoroughbreds are the most beautiful and noble of all God's creatures. They were born for one purpose only: To run as fast as they can for as long as they can. The great turf writer Joe Palmer wrote that the immortal Man o' War was as "close to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else."
This department seconds that emotion and so, naturally, became outraged by a comment in today's Courier from PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Asked by reporter Greg Hall about the organization's goals, this individual blithely admitted it was to bring an end to the horse racing industry on the grounds that it mistreats animals.
I will take second place to nobody in my contempt and outrage for anybody who is cruel to any animal. Try as I may, I probably will never forgive Michael Vick for fighting dogs. But PETA's stance about racing is appalling. If the game got shut down, the breed would end because there would be no other use for thoroughbreds. They're too big and expensive to keep as pets. The breed would simply become as extinct as dinosaurs.
On the other side of the barn, racing is home to far too many owners and trainers who care more about cashing a bet than caring for their horses. It is difficult to disagree when they dismiss PETA as a "bunch of kooks." Yet they need to understand that the best way to discredit PETA is to support sensible reforms and flush out the cheaters.
As fate would have it, PETA's undercover investigation of trainer Steve Asmussen – who trains Oaks favorite Untapable and Derby contender Tapiture – comes at the same time that trainer Art Sherman, 77, has come to Churchill Downs with the Derby favorite, a living flame named California Chrome.
As an 18-year-old, Sherman got to be the exercise boy for Swaps and accompanied the great horse in the railroad boxcar that carried him from California to Louisville for the 1955 Derby.
Also along for the train ride was Mesh Tenney, the Texas cowboy who trained Swaps for owner Rex Ellsworth. After Swaps arrived at Louisville's Union Station and was vanned to Churchill, Tenney slept in his stall for two weeks, fed him with a special feed made from kelp and molasses at Ellsworth's mill in California, and even served as his own blacksmith. Both Tenney and Ellsworth were devout Mormons, and 10 percent of Swaps' earnings went to the church.
The frugality of the Swaps camp drew giggles from the Eastern media, which came to Louisville prepared to coronate the mighty Nashua. A winner in 10 of his 12 starts, Nashua was pure establishment. He was ran in the aristocratic colors of William Woodward's Belair Stud, trained by the legendary "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, and ridden by Eddie Arcaro, then the nation's most popular and successful rider.
In the Derby, however, young jockey Bill Shoemaker sent Swaps to the lead soon after the start. In the turn for home, Arcaro and Nashua drew alongside Swaps and seemed ready to take the lead. But Shoemaker began hitting Swaps furiously with his whip – Ellsworth and Tenney did not believe in coddling their horses – and he drew away for a length-and-a-half victory.
"Shoemaker and I got to be good friends," said Sherman, who has been back to Churchill only once between then and now. "He told me once that Swaps was the best horse he ever rode. I hope California Chrome is my Swaps."
But Ellsworth also had a reputation for mistreating his horses, including Swaps. After his Derby victory, Ellsworth drew increased scrutiny from the PETA groups of that day. One undercover investigation of Ellsworth's ranch in California revealed horses that were malnourished and kept in filthy stalls. It was rumored that he often ran Swaps when the colt was injured, including a match race against Nashua in which he got beat soundly.
In 1957, Whitney Toward, turf writer for Sports Illustrated, visited Ellsworth's farm in Chino to see how Swaps was doing. After suffering a serious injury, Swaps had spent weeks in a specially rigged sling. Here was Tower's report:
"He was out of the sling by then, and Ellsworth took us into his dirty, unkempt stall. When Rex turned on the one overhead light, Swaps blinked and backed off at the sight of the two newcomers standing at his owner's side. Ellsworth grabbed him by his mane and directed a hard right-hand punch to the middle of the horse's face. ‘That,' he said gruffly, ‘will teach you to mind your manners.'"
There is no evidence, of course, that Sherman ever did anything but treat his horses well. Over the years, he has trained some nice horses, including a couple of Grade I stakes winners. But he never had a colt that made him even think about the Derby until California Chrome began maturing earlier this year.
Chrome was bred in California, which may be a good thing for aspiring actors, but not so much for a horse. His dam was purchased for $8,000 and his pedigree screams "sprinter." But in winning four straight races -- including the Santa Anita Derby – by a combined 23 ¼ lengths, California Chrome has convinced many observers that he's the real deal – maybe as good as Swaps, who set seven world records.
If so, who will be his Nashua?
After California Chrome, the field is just a big jumble. That's what everybody is saying. You might as well put their names in a bag, shake it up, and draw one out. That appears to be about as good a way to handicap this Derby as any. And, of course, the media geniuses from the Eastern half of the country are doing mental contortions in search of ways to knock the favorite.
Art Sherman is just sitting chilly. Men of his age and background do not brag or make predictions because they know how screwy horse racing can be. But there's no mistaking the smile that crinkles across his face when he talks about his horse.
"After the Santa Anita Derby," said Sherman, "Victor told me he had a lot left. That got me very excited."
The coffee and the interview ran out at just about the same time. I didn't have time to talk to Sherman about Ellsworth or PETA. I can only hope that we have more time when our paths cross again.